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Part embassy and part ambassador, an East Los Angeles print studio and community center run by a Franciscan nun became an iconic incubator, clubhouse, and epicenter for Chicano Art—and for a civil rights movement that reshaped a region, and beyond.

 

"Culture Power: The Importance of Sister Karen Boccalero & Self Help Graphics & Art in Los Angeles History"

by Jeremy Rosenberg
with assistance by Tomas Benitez & Reina Alejandra Prado Saldivar
for the Studio for Southern California History

In 2004, a modern branch of the East Los Angeles library opened.1 Located in East Los Angeles' new Civic Center complex, the Library features a monumental, bifurcated glass mosaic mural composed of overlapping color streaks of vibrant yellows, reds, oranges, and blues.

 

Titled Our Legacy: Forever Presented, and created by the artist José Antonio Aguirre, the artwork also prominently incorporates images of a dozen political, social, and cultural figures vital to the area’s history. Congressman Edward Roybal, L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, boxer and promoter Oscar De La Hoya, and actor and literary activist Edward James Olmos are among those depicted on the mural’s west wall. Labor leaders Cesar E. Chavez and Dolores Huerta make the east wall, as do journalist Ruben Salazar and artist David Alfaro Siqueiros.

 

At the top of that east wall, between Chavez and Siqueiros and above a guardian angel and Mesoamerican symbols, is the head-and-shoulders profile of a twentieth century Franciscan nun.

This nun was born in Globe, Arizona, to a family of Italian heritage. She was raised in East Los Angeles, in a hillside home. Her birth name was Carmen Rose Boccalero, but she’s far better known as Sister Karen Boccalero. Or, simply, “Sister Karen.”

Boccalero smoked cigarettes, drank coffee and sometimes El Presidente brandy. In keeping with her order’s norms, she wore pants, not a habit, and kept her hair bare, not covered. She cursed, used sticks to chase away rats, and had a mutt named Jacoby who twice got hit by cars.

Most of all, Boccalero was the cofounder, artistic director, and longtime visionary behind the iconic Eastside cultural institution, Self Help Graphics & Art.2

Created in 1971,3 incorporated in 1973, and moved twice before in 1979 finding its longtime 15,000-square-foot, two-story location at 3802 Cesar E. Chavez (neé Brooklyn) Avenue, Self Help Graphics & Art was, on one hand a few-frills print studio and community center. It is now located in Boyle Heights at 1300 East First Street, having moved there in 2011.

On the other hand, SHG4 was incubator, amalgamator, clubhouse, flash point, and rebellion point to Chicano Art, which is a charismatic homegrown blend of contemporary agitprop depictions of contemporary barrio life and pre-Columbian history and mythology that ultimately became an internationally recognized branch of art history.

A who’s who of Eastside Los Angeles artists-gone-global has been affiliated in some way with Self Help. A short list includes Gronk, Patssi Valdez, Willie Herron, Harry Gamboa Jr., Frank Romero, Carlos Almaraz, Eloy Torres, Gilbert “Magu” Lujan, Beto de la Rocha, Los Streetscapers, Roberto “Tito” Delgado, John Valadez, Leo Limon, Daniel J. Martinez, J. Michael Walker, Richard Duardo, Gil de Montes, Barbara Carrasco, Linda Vallejo, George Yepes, Diane Gamboa, Salomon Huerta, Chaz Bojorquez, and Vincent Valdez.

SHG – in particular the artists affiliated with the place – would also famously reanimate el Día de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead—to such a popular extent that by 2010 a professor wrote a book calling it the new major U.S. holiday.5

 

SHG opened during a particularly dynamic and turbulent era of protest, demonstration, and turmoil. From the Vietnam War to Woodstock to Watergate, from assassinations to legislation to civil rights efforts at Selma, Stonewall, and the Silver Dollar Café, Self Help almost couldn’t help but be caught up in fundamental social, philosophical, political, economic, ethnic, religious, and sexual orientation issues, as well as ideals surrounding land development and use, identity, inclusion, and exclusion.

To put it this way: This was an age when the artist Charles Almaraz became the artist Carlos Almaraz.6

Self Help Graphics was ambassador and embassy, a product to some degree of its founder’s vision as well as a product of its times. It was the hyper-traditional and the avant-garde, the establishment and the radical fringe. Self Help Graphics was el movimiento—the movement—and then a living monument to it. It was part of a greater struggle, and it faced a daily struggle. “They were just trying to have a space to do the work and keep the doors open,” says academic Reina Alejandra Prado Saldivar, who has researched and written about SHG and served as the organization’s archivist from 2000-2001.

Self Help Graphics’ artists and artworks were also an emissary from East Los Angeles to the rest of Los Angeles, and to Latino communities elsewhere and the provider of a message both highly personal and somehow universal enough to travel successfully from South Africa to Scotland; from Honduras to Germany; from Mexico City to Madrid.

 

“A national model for both community-based art making and art-based community making,” wrote Chon A. Noriega, director of the UCLA Chicano7 Studies Research Center, and since 2002, a partner organization to SHG.

“A model for cultural intervention and community building in Los Angeles,” wrote Kristin Guzmán, author of Self Help Graphics & Art: Art in the Heart of East Los Angeles.

The meaning behind the first part of the moniker was self-evident. “Sister Karen called the studio, ‘Self Help’ because that’s what she expected people to do,” said Wayne Healy, an artist who made prints there.

The meaning behind the second part of the moniker – that turned out to be more open to interpretation.

Tomas Benitez was Executive Director from 1997 to 2005. “They got a lot of inquiries about jobs and training for printers,” Benitez says of the first couple of years. “So a lot of folks thought it was a social agency. They decided to add the “& Art” at that point.”

In March 2011, SHG departed from its longtime, iconic home – a building that had at one point been red-tagged for post-earthquake teardown. The organization moved three and a half miles west and into an airy and shared warehouse space located across the street from a brand new Gold Line subway and light rail station in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of the City of Los Angeles.8

During the six years previous, SHG had staved off five years of crisis that included going broke, padlocking its doors for three months, purging the former leadership and bringing in new board members and staff, having its home since 1979 sold, and seeing its $1-a-year rent raised significantly and its square footage cut substantially.

Since its inception, keeping SHG alive was a struggle—as it is for the great majority of non-profits (and many for-profit enterprises).

Sister Karen died in 1997. The last of her two cofounders died in 2001. Still, SHG perseveres. Artists who started there have joined the canon. Musicians who played there have become legends. A generation of children received art lessons. Meanwhile, L.A. has a Latino mayor for the first time in more than a century, while East L.A. is run by a Latina county supervisor, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department by a Latino—a law enforcement progressive who calls himself “Sheriff Moonbeam.”

In a 1978 interview with the Los Angles Times, Boccalero spoke about the good she thought SHG could do. She cited teaching school kids “the cultural advantages of being Mexican American” and “introducing them to certain artistic disciplines where they can make a living.”

She also talked about SHG’s limits. “I’m not suggesting we’re educationally equipped to deal with all the poverty, drugs, and crime in the community,” she said, “but we can take an important first step.”

Later during the interview, the Times asked Boccalero, “What qualifies you to deal with the challenges of the barrio?”

 

Boccalero’s reply? “I don’t know anyone is qualified, but someone has to try.”

 

**
 

To paraphrase an old joke, ask two art historians what is “Chicano Art,” and you’ll likely get back three different answers.

The art historian Max Benavidez traces Chicano Art back to 1965, when Luis Valdez founded El Teatro Campesino—the farm worker’s theater.9

Benavidez also cites a particular East L.A. visual artwork as being the first-ever Chicano Art mural. In 1972, Willie Herron came across his brother, stabbed twelve times by gang members and barely hanging onto life.10 Herron accompanied his brother in an ambulance to the hospital, sketching on a pad. That evening, Herron returned to near the site of the stabbing and asked permission to paint the alley-side wall of a bakery owned by his family members.

 

They agreed. Herron worked all night while friends held flashlights. The resulting piece was titled The Wall That Cracked Open. An anti–gang violence Guernica of sorts, Wall shows a central figure screaming in agony, seemingly emerging out of the building like a beating heart exposed by gashed-away skin. There’s also a sad grandmother in view, a skull, and the tags of neighborhood bangers.11

Chuck D. of the seminal New York–based rap group, Public Enemy, famously said, “hip hop is the black CNN.” Something similar could be said of Herron’s mural, and of Chicano Art in general.

Adolfo V. Nodal is a longtime arts administrator. He was general manager of the City of Los Angles Department of Cultural Affairs during the 1990s.12 “The artists,” Nodal said, “have become the communication in the Chicano community.”

Whenever the birth of Chicano Art, whatever the preferred medium, it’s clear that a movement needs some movement. 1920s Harlem had jazz and vibrant portraiture. 1970s Bronx had hip-hop. 1980s South Central, gangsta rap. East Los Angeles, Chicano Art.

Gilbert “Magu” Lujan, an artist with Self Help Graphics roots, said, “Our ancient character dates from today back 10,000 years,” and that to ignore the collected visual idioms from those millennia would be idiocy. “Not to use these symbols would be like Anglos giving up English.”

East Los Angeles has at least 170 murals, according to the alphabetized count on the website LAMurals.org. And murals, and muralism, have a strong Mexican tradition, which had long since arrived in Los Angeles. David Alfaro Siqueiros—a giant of the genre along with Diego Rivera—came to L.A. in 1932 and painted a trio of murals. One was ruined, another whitewashed and only recently restored.

But Self Help Graphics wasn’t particularly about mural making—although in 2002 the work, “Homenaje a David Alfaro Siquieros” by Eva Cockroft and Alessandra Moctezuma was installed on the now-former headquarter’s easternmost wall.13 For decades prior, though, SHG’s exterior walls were covered not in rolled or sprayed frescos but in plain blue – and then later tan14 – paint as well as the extraordinary, Antonio Gaudi–style broken-plate mosaics of artist Eduardo Oropeza.

Instead, SHG’s main medium was, and remains, printmaking. Silkscreening, mostly—the most affordable and accessible variety of screen work. But also lithography, etching, intaglio, wood block, linocuts, and serigraphs.

Why printmaking? In part because of the Mexican tradition of Ateliers. And in part, as the axiom goes, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one”15—and a good way to put out a message quickly, at demonstrations or otherwise.16

But most of all Self Help Graphics had printmaking as its medium because Sister Karen Boccalero was a printmaker. Boccalero earned a masters degree in fine art printing from Temple University. During her time in Philadelphia she worked with Allen Edmunds, organizer of the Brandywine Workshop, a community-focused fine art printmaking studio and gallery.

Boccalero also studied in Rome at the Tyler School of Art Abroad, and in Los Angeles under famed social activist and artist Sister Corita Kent, at the Immaculate Heart College.

In 1971,17 Boccalero acquired an old printing press and moved into the garage of her apartment near Eastman and Gage Streets in East L.A.

One artist remembers Boccalero selling three of her own original artworks around this time for $10. Boccalero would soon all but give up on making her own work in lieu of administrating SHG – a decision Tomas Benitez calls “purposeful," adding that "she struggled with it a lot.” The UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center’s SHG archives record only two examples of Boccalero's artwork. One, Without, from 1983, is a text quotation from Mohandas Gandhi that reads:

 

There were seven sins in the world. Wealth without work, Pleasure without conscience, Knowledge without character, Commerce without morality, Science without humanity, Worship without sacrifice, and Politics without principle.

—Mahatma Gandhi.

“It’s important to note that she was an artist,” says Reina Prado, regarding Boccalero. “It’s because of this sensibility that she ran a program that caters to artists’ needs as was the case with the Ateliers."

The Mexican artists and partners Carlos Bueno and Antonio Ibañez 18 —Bueno a muralist and Ibañez a photographer—joined Boccalero in the garage, and in 1972, in a third-story 9,000-square-foot space at 2111 Brooklyn Avenue, at the corner of Soto Street. This was the first official location for the newly incorporated Self Help Graphics.19

 

Bueno and Ibañez soon split, angrily, from SHG, having preferred a working artists’ studio to a community center. Boccalero wanted—and got—both.

Boccalero’s fellow nuns at the Redwood City, California–based Order of St. Francis gave her the freedom to use Self Help Graphics as her mission.

Although the order didn’t pay Boccalero anything other than $35 per week for expenses, the O.S.F. did provided SHG some rent money and some volunteer assistance—Sister Pious served as a bookkeeper, for instance, and Sister Beth, Sister Margaret, and Sister Maria Elena were also involved.

When SHG opened, Los Angeles was neither devoid of nor entirely peppered with cultural institutions. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion opened in 1964, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) was founded in 1965, Norton Simon Museum in 1969, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in 1979, the Armand Hammer in 1990, the new Getty in 1999, Disney Hall in 2003. The Museum of Latin American Art, in Long Beach, opened in 1996. A short-lived Latino Museum of History, Art & Culture opened in Downtown L.A. in around 2000, soon closed, then moved elsewhere Downtown and reopened.20

In short—in the early 1970s, there weren’t a deluge of non-commercial spaces devoted to art and culture—and there were even fewer on the Eastside, and fewer still showing Latino-made work.

“She [Boccalero] put the arts scene in East Los Angeles on the map. She helped to cultivate Chicano Art,” said Bolton Colburn, director of the Laguna Art Museum, which exhibited a show of SHG works in 1995, and purchased the entire Self Help Graphics Atelier collection until that date.21

In addition to SHG’s in-house gallery space (Galeria Otra Vez), Chicano Art was also exhibited early on at Goez Art Studio and Gallery in East L.A.,22 and Mechicano Art Center, which started out on the Westside and then moved to East L.A.23

Fine art print studios have storied histories in Mexico, Spain, and elsewhere, but weren’t prominent in Los Angeles. Then, in 1960, artist June Wayne opened the Tamarind Lithography Workshop. In 1968, Gemini G.E.L. opened and became for decades the place for top international artists to work. Well-regarded Cirrus print studio opened in 1970. Each of the three was important; none were located near East Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, arts education—much less Mexican arts or culture—wasn’t much offered to students in East Los Angeles, a major reason why SHG's Barrio Mobile Art Studio would serve so many children.

The Barrio Mobile Art Studio was a converted UPS van that traveled to East L.A. neighborhood parks and school parking lots and occasionally more distant locations. The van was outfitted with a darkroom and photography supplies, fold-out silkscreening tables, sculpture-making supplies, and a selection of Mesoamerican books. The van served 7,500 children in one year.

“I don’t think there’s another program like it anywhere,” Linda Vallejo said.24 She’s an artist and was an instructor on the van. “It’s been a long time since anything that sophisticated visited low-income, underserved children in the community.”

Those visits weren’t just about using pretty colors, or giving kids a paint-splattered break from their daily retinue. The individual teachers—who often had similar ethnic and geographic backgrounds as their charges—would turn the art lessons into history lessons as well.

One SHG instructor, for instance, brought a variety of Mexican trajes—dresses—on the van to use as props when discussing the history of the various regions from which the dresses came.

Another instructor—the sculptor Michael Amescua—had an anthropology degree from Occidental College. He collected books about Mesoamerican history and kept them in the Barrio Mobile Art Studio. “The kids were hungry,” Amescua said, “they really enjoyed it.”

Vallejo saw the same. “Sister Karen was very adamant about including Mesoamerican and Mexican iconography and history in teaching young people in East L.A.,” Vallejo said. “And so you had young Chicanos, young Mexican-Americans, young Latinos, that enjoyed learning about Mexican history and making imagery that was reminiscent [of the] iconography of Mexico.”25

Students weren’t charged for using the Barrio Mobile Art Studio, and throughout the years, artists have paid little or nothing to use SHG’s East facilities. As recently as 2009, SHG’s print studio offered unlimited use of the facility and materials to experienced artists for only $20 per month, plus one-fifth of the resulting print runs. Ten dollars would buy an individual a demonstration session, where they’d go home with one or two prints.

These prices are to some extent a reflection of what a community can afford. But the prices are to a greater degree the ongoing legacy of Boccalero and her ideals.

In 1979, Boccalero persuaded the nuns’ hierarchal higher-ups at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to let SHG rent a church-owned property for $1 annually.26 This was the 15,000-square-foot space at 3802 Brooklyn Avenue. Formerly a Catholic Youth Organization hall, the two-story building had a ballroom on its top level that hosted milestones—Linda Vallejo’s parents held their wedding reception there—as well as concerts by bands such as Cannibal and the Headhunters, the Midnighters, the Salas Brothers, and Los Lobos.

Boccalero and her young staff of artists and volunteers set about organizing the new space. Studios for artists went downstairs—Patssi Valadez had a space for two years. Michael Amescua’s welding studio endured for decades. Willie Herron’s band, Los Illegals, rehearsed in another studio space. Upstairs, Leo Limon – for ten years – Tito Delgado, Dolores Guerrero Cruz and Arturo Urista also had studio space.

SHG also set up a new Galeria Otra Vez,27 which had been open at the previous location since 1977 and showed exhibitions of work generated by SHG-affiliated artists and others.28

And, of course, SHG set up its signature print shop, which over the years was home to a handful of master printers, including Jose “Joe” Alpuche, who started in 1991 and endures as of this writing, with his son Ivan now working as his assistant.

In 1982, SHG began an annual high-end Atelier program—the name designed to interest buyers and funders familiar with the European—and subsequent Mexican—use of that term. Most years, twenty or so artists worked with SHG’s master printer to produce editions of their work. Pieces of the collected works, and those from past years, are stored and available for sale in flat files at SHG, as well as placed out on tables during semi-annual public print sales.

Prices are so relatively low that art dealers have been known to come try and seek out works by artists they represent, only to resell them at a higher price.

Boccalero wanted and got prices low enough to allow universal entry level collecting. She once accepted $30 from a college kid who wanted a Patssi Valadez piece, because that’s what the student said he was able to pay.29

The Atelier prints have traditionally been a key source of earned income for non-profit SHG. With that in mind, some say,30 Boccalero invited the renowned artist Gronk to create the first-ever print in the Atelier series. This, Reina Prado says, set up the Special Editions program for the Ateliers.

Today, Gronk savages Self Help Graphics (“I call it Self Hell Gothic”) and Boccalero (“I’m not a big fan of Sister Karen”). He does speak highly of the master printer.

Gronk, Herron, Valadez, and Gamboa Jr. collaborated together from 1972 to 1987. In 1974, for a show at SHG called Asco: An Exhibition of Our Worst Work, they gave themselves the collective name that they’d keep for more than a decade. Asco is Spanish for “nausea.”

That same year, Asco staged a disruption of Self Help’s Día de los Muertos procession. In Mexican tradition, Día de los Muertos is an annual opportunity to honor and celebrate relatives and others who have passed away. Día de los Muertos is a blend of Catholic and Aztec as well as New World and Old World customs, at once a solemn, pious, and exuberant pageant, with visual, theatrical, floral, culinary arts, and other such creativity stressed. Altars are a key part of the Día. Marigolds—a tradition born in Spain, where the orange flowers grow in autumn—are as well. And so are paper mache and other representations of calaveras—skulls.

In 1972, Boccalero asked her SHG co-founders Bueno and Ibañez for their ideas about staging some sort of community event—an event that would be something like U.S. Thanksgiving. “He bridged the whole idea, the connection between Mexico and Chicanos here,” Kathy Mas-Gallagos says of Bueno.31 The Mexican artists suggested Día de los Muertos, Boccalero agreed, and a signature Self Help Graphics tradition was born—one that would stimulate the non-profit's growth, as well as that of the Day of the Dead locally, nationally, and internationally.

Radio journalist and spoken word artist Adolfo Guzman Lopez writes a Los Angeles–based blog called Movimiento. In 2010, he cited a book by Rutgers University professor Regina Marchi. The professor posits that Day of the Dead is now poised to become the next major U.S. holiday.

SHG’s Día de los Muertos originally began at its building. Then, a proceeding—a parade filled with calavera-face-painted painted kids and adults—lead one mile down Cesar E. Chavez Avenue to the Evergreen Cemetery. The ceremonies continued there, then the procession returned to SHG.

The events can be both well-orchestrated and ad-libbed, a mix of the sacred and the profane and the rehearsed and the practical. In 1976, Leo Limón , only days removed from his stint in the army, mounted a large skull on the front of his 1959 Chevy and drove—slowly—from Echo Park to East L.A. for the procession. He was late arriving, and joined the procession as it was turning around. Participants told him to take the lead, and so he did, enjoying honking at the police escort in front of his ride, and letting a news crew hitch on his trunk.

Variations on the SHG-Evergreen itinerary sometimes occurred. Linda Vallejo said the earliest Días were intimate affairs where core associates held a quiet dinner.

“The first Self Help Graphics Day of the Dead were very traditional,” Vallejo said. “We had altaras decked with fruit and banana leaves in old-fashioned Catholic altar form, against the wall or in the middle of the room.”

Further traditional touches included laying out marigolds, handing papel picado—sort of negative-space dolls cut into colorful tissue paper—and placing photographs of relatives on platos—spirit plates—upon the altars.

Once the crowds outgrew SHG’s auditorium, altars were moved outdoors into the parking lot. By 2009 and 2010, El Día was held nearby at the East L.A. Civic Center, which is now a Gold Line Eastside Extension stop. Syndicated “La Cuchachara” newspaper cartoonist and SHG printmaker Lalo Alcarez was a 2009 emcees; bands played; small kids lugged (empty) five-gallon horchata jugs around, seeking pocket change donations for the non-profit.

Día de los Muertos celebrations have since proliferated locally, nationally, and beyond, many taking on distinctive character. English-language websites and print periodicals publish lists of public Day of the Dead events. The Hollywood Forever Cemetery 32—eternal resting place of various celebrities and summertime playground of very much alive movie- and music-loving hipsters—holds a popular public Día de los Muertos.

SHG indirectly spread Día de los Muertos all over the globe. SHG directly spread Día de los Muertos to Glasgow, Scotland. In 1994 UK/LA , SHG participated in an artist’s exchange with the Glasgow Print Studio. Two Scottish artists who came to SHG, Janie Nicol and Ashley Cook, were so taken with Día de los Muertos that they insisted their home institution sponsor one.

Subsequently, in 1996, Ofelia Esparza, Margaret Sosa, and Yolanda Gonzalez went from SHG to Glasgow. “I sent them three of the greatest emissaries to ever come out of East L.A.,” Benitez says.

Esparza, Sosa, and Gonzalez clearly made an enduring impression abroad – Glasgow’s Día de los Muertos continues to this day.33 The trio also made an impression back at SHG headquarters. “We got faxes all day from them, first telling us how beautiful it all was – a procession in the street led by children,” Benitez says.

Back, though, in 1974, the then-three-year-old SHG tradition was already seen as sufficiently institutionalized that it could be rebelled against. Perhaps counterintuitively—and unconsciously—having such a local institution to be able to rebel against is another vital step in a movement’s maturation.

So, Asco culture-jammed SHG's traditional Día de los Muertos. “Whereas the others felt they had to do the altars, ours was, we alter the situation,” Gronk said.34

In lieu of dressing with calaveras or in zoot suits or Aztec costume like many other participants were doing then and since, Asco’s members came dressed as a tri-plane (Herron), a bolt of lighting (Gamboa Jr.), the universe (Valadez), and an oversized envelope—a letter to the dead (Gronk). “I always thought if there was one voice to a community, it was kind of like Stalinism,” Gronk said.

Far from ruining the event, the disruption made the legend grow—both for Asco and SHG’s Día de los Muertos. Boccalero could be rigid—she personally shut down the Barrio Mobile Art Studio program in 1990, ostensibly to save its $90,000 annual cost, arguably because the program was threatening to overwhelm SHG’s focus and identity—but as a cursing, smoking, pants-wearing, habit-free Catholic nun in an esoteric cultural collaboration with two openly gay men, Boccalero’s tolerance for free expression was high.

Valadez, twenty-five years later, giving an oral history interview for the Smithsonian Institution, pointed out that, in 1980, Herron opened the celebrated Club Vex at SHG. Legendary punk acts ranging from Herron’s own Los Illegals to Westside acts like Black Flag and X played there.35

“She’s the one who allowed all those punk rock bands to happen,” Valadez said of Boccalero. The Sister also didn’t stop Herron from jumping out of an SHG window for a performance, Valadez said, or spray painting the building’s wall. Boccalero did stop artist Manuel Ocampo from exhibiting certain work after the 1992 L.A. riots, in a show about the Christopher Columbus quincecentennial that was subtitled, “Monster! Monster?”

"I feel very strongly about the artist's right to express himself," Boccalero told the Los Angeles Times. "But this is a racist statement. It would not be acceptable in our Chicano community and to people who bring their children to the gallery."

Meanwhile, his perception of SHG as lacking meritocracy and high artistic standards rankled Gronk, much as the community center idea had to confounders Bueno and Ibañez.

And the prevalence of certain imagery throughout the years at SHG has proved off-putting to some of the more avant-garde artists and personalities involved.

“The Virgen de Guadalupe, Emiliano Zapata, Che Guevara, all of these symbols that we may or may not have wanted to use at one point or another, we avoided them,” Herron said of Asco. “And we avoided them because they just seemed too common and too stereotypical in terms of our representations.”

SHG’s flat files brim to this day with decades’ worth of examples of each of the above. Many are more traditional and reverential. Many others are sly, satiric, silly, or borderline blasphemous. Here’s a Guevara, a Nike corporate swoosh in the middle of his signature black beret,36 there’s the Virgen as a homeboy’s back tattoo, there she is again as a beautifully rendered cartoon squid.37

Other archetypical – though hardly exclusively so – Self Help Graphics subject matter includes Aztec heritage and figures, family life, and the evils of materialism, gentrification, television, and police brutality. Other familiar images over the years include lucha libre, loteria cards, and, of course, calaveras.

With hundreds of professional artists pulling prints over the decades, though, there are certainly images, styles, subject matter, themes, and colors for almost every contemporary taste. In the 2000s, for instance, Shizu Saldamando printed one work called Hexing, which shows a young woman primping to head out to Willie Herron’s club. “East Los Punk,” and “Para Los Rockers” reads graffiti-style text on the print.

Another Saldamando print, Class Notes, recalls a student’s doodles on what is made to look like a piece of lined loose-leaf paper. The work features a cute panda, some hearts, a “Moz” shout-out to Morrissey, and cursive handwriting about, presumably, a school lecture. And as Tomas Benitez says, “Ever see Alfredo de Batucs’ Zapata with the humongous dick and the wooden shoes? Some artists took chances.”

But still, Gronk wearing an envelope is far different from Teatro Campesino performing its Zoot Suit play in the late `70s at the Día de los Muertos. Or is it? Artists—and communities—need not march in lock step.

And the Asco jam occurred in 1974. Little about American life, or life in Los Angeles, at that time seemed as it was before. And the marching going on was far from lock step.

 

**

 

On August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon resigned as President of the United States, departing the White House grounds via helicopter. This was also twenty months before different helicopters lifted off the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon as North Vietnamese forces took full control of the south.

The ten or so years that preceded these separate copter rides were among the most turbulent in U.S. history. The Vietnam War (1964–1975) cost the lives of 58,000 American soldiers, thirty percent of them draftees. The war also polarized public opinion and popular culture, and roiled college and high school campuses. The National Guard shot students at Kent State. The Chicago Police Department beat protestors outside a Democratic National Convention. Capitol Hill drummers kept Nixon awake and harrowed.

Also during that time: Hippies happened; the Summer of Love and Woodstock took place. Timothy Leary—and many others—took LSD. Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the black power salute on the Mexico City Olympics medal stand. The Stonewall Inn was raided and a riot, and a gay rights movement ensued. The Watts riots took place a dozen or so miles from East L.A. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. The progressive Vatican II encyclical was released. John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Malcolm X., and Martin Luther King Jr. were each assassinated. Hunter S. Thompson covered the Hell’s Angels—and came to East L.A. to report “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan,” about the killing of Ruben Salazar.

Robert F. Kennedy was murdered June 5, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. In the hotel's kitchen, crouched next to Kennedy, holding him, was Juan Romero, a 17-year-old bus boy whose family emigrated to L.A. from Mexico seven years prior. Three hours before Kennedy’s slaying, the presidential candidate rode through East Los Angeles.38

Kennedy met and campaigned regularly with Cesar Chavez. The United Farm Workers (UFW) had formed in 1965, and although much of the union’s picketing took place in central California fields, the UFW’s presence in East Los Angeles has always been strong, and the organization’s national political legislative office and internet communications staff are based there now, on—naturally—Cesar Chavez Avenue. And even in 2010, murals with the UFW’s black Aztec eagle with feathers squared off still populate East L.A. walls.

East L.A. in the `60s was somewhat about protest, but just as much about getting by—“a unique brand of working-class politics intertwined with an emerging sense of Chicano ethnic identity and youth militancy,” wrote Guzmán in Self Help Graphics & Art: Art in the Heart of East Los Angeles.

That ethnic identity and youth militancy came together in March 1968, at a protest called the East L.A. Blowouts. Thousands of students in East Los Angeles and Los Angeles walked out of their high schools and middle schools as protest against the poor quality of their education and facilities. Student demands included an increase in the number of Mexican-American teachers and administrators, and more bilingualism.39

The Brownout is considered a seminal moment in the Chicano Rights Movement, which took place from approximately 1965 to 1975. Also known as the Chicano Movement, El Movimiento, or Chicanismo, the Movement aimed for equality, power, pride, awareness, opportunity, and justice.

The Chicano Rights Movement took place in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement that forced change in African American segregation and disadvantage. It was bracketed by the Women’s Rights Movement, which led toward changes such as Roe v. Wade and Title IX, but not to an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In addition to the East L.A. Brownout, another seminal moment in the Chicano Rights Movement occurred in 1969, when Cal State Los Angeles—located on L.A.’s eastside—opened the world’s first Chicano Studies department.

In April of that same year, college student activist leaders held a summit at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where they drafted El Plan de Santa Barbara. In the wake of this meeting and manifesto, the organization MEChA formed. The group advocates “liberation” and “self-determination for our people,” and cites Aztlan as pan-Chicano homeland.

And perhaps the most significant moment of all in the Chicano Rights Movement was August 29, 1970. That’s the date of the Chicano Moratorium, or more formally, the National Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War. Thirty-thousand demonstrators took to East L.A. streets.

Law enforcement presence was heavy and its response to the peaceful march, severe. In all, 150 people were injured, and four people were killed, including a Chasidic Jew who joined the Movement in sympathy.

One of the other dead was Ruben Salazar—whose image graces that same East Los Angeles Library wall as Boccalero.40 Salazar was a well-regarded columnist for the Los Angeles Times41 and news director for Spanish language KMEX television station.

He was slain while sitting, drinking a beer inside the Silver Dollar Café, when a tear gas canister was shot into his head. The canister was fired by a sheriff’s deputy. Salazar had been investigating allegations of brutality by the sheriff’s department.

Consuelo Flores was a child residing in East L.A. then and is a current member of the Self Help Graphics Board of Directors. She recounted the aftermath of the Moratorium and the Salazar killing like this:

 

Th[e] whole unity, the political cohesiveness of the community fell apart. But so did the morale. So did the desire to do anything anymore. In fact, there was such fear within the community that anything could happen to anyone. If they are sending our young to Vietnam, and the soldiers are being sent to the front lines first, we’re considered disposable. Latinos are sent to the front lines first. They are going to get shot and killed before anyone else. The imbalance was like that. We try to protest that war, that injustice, the imbalance in our own community and we get killed—because there were people killed during the march. We’re disposable here.

Flores also points to the killing of Salazar as catalyst for SHG's first Día de los Muertos, held twenty-five months later.42

 

Sister Karen, along with a handful of artists in the community, decide we have to do something to bring this community back. We’ve got to do something to honor the people who died in this struggle. We’ve got to do something to honor Ruben Salazar, who tried to do something about it. We have to honor the soldiers who had come back from the war in body bags. We have to do something to help not only the families heal but the community as a whole to heal, to become whole again.

A generation later, following the 1992 L.A. Riots, SHG again became a source for damage control or damage repair.

The Riots took place across Los Angeles following the acquittal of all but one of the police officers involved in the beating of motorist Rodney King. During six days of burning and looting, fifty people were killed, 4,000 injured, and 12,000 arrested, and $1 billion of property was damaged.

“`92 was actually a watershed for Self Help,” Tomas Benitez said. “Because everybody and their momma was saying, ‘We’re going to go to the California African American Museum, and we’ll get African American shit from them and they’ll make us better again. And we’ll go to the Japanese American National Museum, and we’ll go to the Jewish—and then we’ll go to—what museum is in East L.A.?’ There was no museum.” Benitez continues, “Everybody and their momma came to Self Help and said, ‘Oh, make us good with your Chicano art.’”

Two years after the riots, the United States Information Agency (USIA) funded a global tour of an exhibition of SHG artworks. The resulting Chicano Expressions traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa—where its thirty images graced the Pretoria Art Museum just as South Africa ended apartheid and held one-person, one-vote elections. Expressions continued to eight other African nations. The show expanded to include fifty total items and toured Europe. SHG works have shown in England, Ireland, Israel, and Mexico; Expressions spend three years traveling around the latter nation and remains in permanent residence and available for loan at the U.S. embassy in Mexico City.

“All the missionary work we were doing with Chicano art and culture is basically a message to the world,” Benitez said, “which is, we’re not here to eat your young. We’re just like you. We’re more alike than we are different.”

Benitez—a charismatic storyteller who says Boccalero died in his arms, and who was forced out as executive director in 2005 when SHG went broke and shut down for three months—had a store of tales about the Expressions tour.

In South Africa, Benitez says he cried seeing the works on the museum walls. He also got wide-eyed when a South African man came up to him, impressed with the exhibition, and said, “You Yankees are really doing things!”

“Como que Yanquis?”—Who you calling Yankee?—Benitez said was his reaction, using here an exaggerated accent. "I’m from East L.A."

The larger truth, as the administrator understood it, sounds just like what the USIA would have wanted South Africans and the world to take from the show. “These people were relating to this artwork because the themes were particular, and in doing so, being truthful, were universal,” Benitez said. “They were American. They were Chicano. They were personal.”

 

**

 

It’s said that demography is destiny. So too, can be land use decisions and urban planning policy. Barrios—ostensibly a translation for “neighborhood” but used more as a synonym for “ghetto” and then reclaimed as a symbol of ethnic pride—have tended to lack political clout and suffered when it comes to decisions about an area’s infrastructure and utilities.43

In the race to fulfill President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s plan for a U.S interstate system, infrastructure decisions of the mid-late1950s and early 1960s often wound up cutting through established inner city, minority, urban neighborhoods.

East Los Angeles’ plight is a textbook case. In 1960, the Pomona (or 60) Freeway was built straight through the area, bisecting East L.A. from east to west. The 710 Freeway bisects East L.A. from north to south.

The end result? The western section of East Los Angeles is boxed in on all four directions by freeways—the 710, 60, 5, and 101.

Also, engineers created the East Los Angeles Interchange, which one website calls “the world’s busiest freeway interchange.” This concrete cloverleaf mammoth marries those four freeways and is said to service 430,000-plus vehicles daily.

And just beyond the westernmost of those freeways stands the once-mighty Los Angeles River, itself straight-jacketed by concrete in an Army Corps of Engineers flood-control action concluded in 1958.

The advent of the new freeway and infrastructure coincided with the shuttering of the Los Angeles metropolitan area’s famed Red Cars. Debuting in 1898, these Pacific Electric trolley cars were the key cog in a far-flung regional rail system that drew 109 million riders, for instance, during 1944. It wasn’t until 2009, with the Gold Line Eastside Extension, that rail service would return to East L.A.

Throughout East L.A., just under two-thirds of the population are renters, not homeowners. Evangeline Ordaz-Molina, vice president and general counsel of the East Los Angeles Community Corporation, said in 2010 that absentee landlords control seventy-eight percent of East L.A.’s rental units.44 East L.A. also has the Maravilla Housing Project, a dividing line of sorts between East L.A. and nearby Monterey Park.

These various forms of engineered isolation led East Los Angeles to develop—or not develop—in different fashions than much of neighboring Los Angeles. So too did the governing structure of the area. Three different times during a fourteen-year span—in 1961, 1963, and 1974—East Los Angeles tried but failed to attain official cityhood.

So instead of being a city council district of Los Angeles, with elected neighborhood council members, elected city council members, and an elected mayor; or instead of being its own city with its own mayor, East L.A. is a ward of massive Los Angeles County—with its ten million–strong population.45

Of course, L.A. proper didn’t elect a Latino mayor from 1872 until Antonio Villaraigosa’s 2005 victory. Villaraigosa was born in Boyle Heights, up the street from East L.A.’s boundaries. East L.A. did help elect Latino Edward Roybal to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1962 with the help of massive voter registration; and the current county supervisor is Gloria Molina, a Latina. Her office worked to secure SHG a $250,000 grant in 2009 that was crucial to the organization’s survival.46

It’s easy to speculate but impossible to know just how East L.A. would have turned out the past century or half century under different government and infrastructure conditions.

Architect Frank Villalobos grew up and lives in East L.A. Through his firm, Barrio Partners, he went on to be the lead architect for the Gold Line Eastside Extension, which brought seven new light rail stops across the L.A. River. “The expression of ‘crossing over’ is about a crossover of generations, cultures, and economic strata,” Villalobos told Next American City magazine. “It’s about acceptance.”

The architect also said the project was a “dream come true” for Barrio Partners. “We started forty years ago thinking we were going to change the world. We didn’t realize it would change with a Metro rail, and not with a hospital or a school.”

Or, say, a humble print studio.

For forty years, community members and curious outsiders have been finding their way to Self Help Graphics. And locally, nationally, and internationally, Self Help Graphics has been finding its way into hearts—and onto walls.

An extraordinary number of the artists from the Self Help Graphics orbit have gone on to successful careers as working artists—no small feat in a cutthroat profession. Others have been inspired to open up Self Help-style venues elsewhere. Artemio Rodriguez went on to open a studio in Mexico; Magda Audifred opened a studio in Long Beach; Yolanda Gonzalez started an art space in Boyle Heights; Sam Coronado launched Coronado Street, a print studio in Austin, Texas.

Armando Duron said he was once visiting St. Louis and picked up a catalog of an art exhibition there. Reading the text, he saw how the artist’s fondest childhood memory was of Self Help Graphics.

At another time, in another place, would Self Help Graphics have mattered as much?

Michael Amescua knew Boccalero for more than twenty years. Amescua said Boccalero would have collaborated with whomever, wherever. “She would have helped if she lived in a black ’hood, white ’hood, Japanese. It just so happened that she lived in a Mexican ’hood,” he said. “It wasn’t like this altruistic idea—‘Oh, I’m going to go help these poor Mexicanos.’ She was eminently curious and she wanted to know what you could do.”

And so if the neighborhood schools had been better, would there have been an East L.A. Brownout? If Vietnam hadn’t happened, would there have been a Chicano Moratorium? If wages and conditions were better on farms, would the UFW have picketed?

Probably not, but impossible to say for certain.

And what if East L.A. had more and better libraries, bilingual education, cultural institutions, arts classes, and other after-school activities in place, what would have been the character—and the longevity—of Self Help Graphics?

In 1985, Boccalero told the Los Angeles Times, “The struggle of Chicano artists is to maintain their expression, their piece of reality… and to get the world to look and listen.”

Thanks in part to Self Help Graphics, the world did.

NOTES

 

Dear Reader: Special thanks to Jeremy Rosenberg, Tomas Benitez and Reina Alejandra Saldivar Prado for their assistance in writing this essay. I would like to thank all of the interviewees who donated their time to speaking about Sister Karen Boccalero as part of the Studio for Southern California History's oral history project.

Finally, thank you goes to the individuals who continue to fight for Self Help Graphics continued survival. This vital organization is thriving at its new location at 1300 East First Street in Boyle Heights under the leadership of Executive Director Evonne Gallardo, Master Printer Jose Alpuche and Program Manager Joel Garcia. Visit them online at http://www.selfhelpgraphics.com/.

Sharon Sekhon, Executive Director, the Studio for Southern California History

1

East Los Angeles is a 7.5–square mile section of unincorporated Los Angeles County with, according to the 2010 U.S. Census , a population of nearly 130,000 people. The area is such a complicated political and demographic zone that even a simple attempt to recite its boundaries and demographics can became a charged undertaking. That said, Census data indicates ninety-five or so percent of East Los Angeles residents are Latino, and nearly half are foreign-born. Two-thirds of the population doesn’t have a high school degree, and more than a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.

2

Originally named Self Help Graphics, the “& Art” suffix was added in 1973.

3

Academic Reina Alejandra Prado Saldivar read an early draft of this essay and points out that the date is sometimes given as 1970.

4

Current President of the Board of Directors Stephen Saiz agrees that Self Help Graphics & Art is referred to by many abbreviates – including “SHG&A,” Self Help,” “Self Help Graphics,” and “SHG.” This essay will for the most part use the latter.

5

Rutgers University professor Regina Marchi, author of Day of the Dead in the USA.

6

East Los Angeles was home to various non-Latino immigrant groups as well, particularly during the first half of the 20th century. Jewish immigration was strong, as was Japanese, Molokan, and Serbian. A trip to Evergreen Cemetery reveals and helps date various migration waves and overlaps.

7

The word “Chicano” describes people of Mexican heritage who live in the southwestern United States—in states formerly owned by Mexico. The word is presumed to be a variant on the words “Mexicano,” or “Mechicano."

8

El Teatro Campesino would go on to perform at least three of Self Help Graphics’ earliest Día de los Muertos proceedings, from 1977 to 1979. Prior to that, Valdez put on plays in fields and along United Farm Workers picket lines.

9

Gangs remain active in East Los Angeles, as well, of course, as in many other neighborhoods and cities across the Los Angeles metropolitan area and beyond. One Self Help Graphics artist and former staffer recalled how one of his most promising teenage pupils got jumped into a gang and soon went to prison for his role in a drive-by shooting. Gang members also apparently produced a publication out of the Barrio Mobile Art Studio.

10

Like many murals, this one was painted over, presumably by graffiti abatement workers for the county. After a public outcry, Herron restored the mural.

11

Cultural Affairs was a SHG funder.

12

Tomas Benitez notes that “Homenaje” was Cockroft’s final work, as she was dying from a terminal cancer. Cockroft – and Moctezuma – had a community of help, Benitez recalls. “A legion of who’s who in muralists went up the scaffolding to help the ladies finish the wall.”

13

The original blue color was changed to tan in 2009 by building’s new owner, Piedmont Investment Company.

14

Quote from A.J. Liebling. “Do You Belong in Journalism?” New Yorker, May 4, 1960.

15

SHG presses were busy in the three days prior to the 1,000,000-person May Day immigration rights March of May 1, 2005, churning out1,000 posters by four artists. The posters were distributed to marchers.

16

Facts can be fuzzy when it comes to SHG’s history. Various sources use different approximate years to describe when it first opened, when it moved, when it moved again, and even whether there is a hyphen between Self and Help.

17

Frank Hernandez another early participant.

18

A sculpture built into the building’s façade was created by Robert “Tito” Delgado, for years affiliated with SHG.

19

The Latino Museum is another institution that acquired the complete set of Atelier prints – more than 300 images at the time of the Museum’s acquisition.

20

Opened in 1969 in East L.A. by José Luis Gonzalez. Many artists who printed and exhibited at SHG also showed at Goez.

21

Opened in late 1968 or early1969 on the Westside, the space was co-founded by Victor Franco and Moira Bright. Franco had previously been active in East Los Angeles editing a student newspaper, co-organizing student demonstrations, and trying to organize a pan-gang “La Junta.” Mechanico moved to East Los Angeles in 1971.

22

Reina Alejandra Prado Saldivar has researched and written about Mechicano, and says: “Mechicano Art Center started a similar program and was also a print studio. When Mechicano closed its doors, the equipment was given to SHG.”

23

Like Taller de Grafico, in México City.

24

Either they got what they paid for, or they couldn't afford to maintain the building, or both. The building was plagued by plumbing and electrical issues and a perennially leaking roof. A small electrical fire in 1991 did minimal damage.

Tomas Benitez reports that the “Otra Vez” name came courtesy of the exclamation of a town drunk, who would say that each time he climbed the stairs and encounter another new exhibition.

25

The first SHG exhibition, in 1971, took place at El Mercado on East 1st Street.

26

That student went on to be an attorney, and a more significant collector.

27

Gronk, for example. And Reina Alejandra Prado Saldivar, an artist and academic who researched and then wrote about SHG, and who was hired by SHG to archive the organization’s collection from 2000-2001.

28

Gallagos made prints at SHG, and went on to found Avenue 50 Studios, a Latino and Chicano art space in Highland Park.

Located on Santa Monica Boulevard, in Los Angeles' Westside.

29

Sosa is known in part for her papel picado work. Esparaza is a third-generation altar maker and probably SHG’s most renowned; she’s also printed at SHG.

30

“At the time,” Gronk said, “if people would have asked me, ‘What do you think of the Day of the Dead,’ I probably would have said, ‘candy.’”

31

The Black Eyed Peas and Ozamatli are among other notable local gone international groups to play SHG. Rage Against the Machine’ played there, too, and the band’s Zack de la Rocha silk-screened at SHG, co-creating an image showing a podium with a television in lieu of human speaker. The leading theater group Culture Clash also has a long relationship with SHG, and the institution's flat files still hold examples of prints announcing Culture Clash shows.

32

Lalo Alcaraz, Che, 1998.

33

The artist known as Germs: http://www.germs4u.com/.

34

Armando Duron remembers seeing RFK’s vehicle and wondering who the man accompanying the candidate—it turned out to be Rosie Grier. Tomas Benitez recalls his brother Patrick running out to get an autograph from RFK.

35

Robert Kennedy met with student leaders of the East L.A. Blowouts, including a young Harry Gamboa, Jr.

36

Salazar’s image is also on a U.S. postage stamp.

37

Examples of Salazar column headlines from 1970 include the following: “The Mexican-Americans NEDA Much Better School System,” “Who Is a Chicano? And What Is It the Chicanos Want?” “Mexican-American’s Dilemma: He’s Unfit in Either Language,” “Chicanos vs. Traditionalists,” and “The ‘Wetback’ Problem Has More Than Just One Side.”

38

Flores says the shock was too great the first month after, and thirteen months didn’t prove enough planning time. She wasn’t involved in the SHG decision making because she was a child.

39

Wealthier neighborhoods often do have the political clout and financial capital useful in fighting off infrastructure projects. Local examples of this NIMBY-ism in transportation include South Pasadena’s success at keeping the 710 Freeway out for thirty years; and Beverly Hills keeping the proposed subway-to-the-sea at bay.

40

The activist group Mothers of East Los Angeles formed in 1984 to fight off the locating of a state prison in East L.A. Eleven years later, the group rallied against the installation of a power plant in the nearby city of Vernon.

41

42

Frank Romero made some works at SHG. Is it any wonder that some of his most celebrated – if not the SHG works -- celebrated prints show interchanges (Crossroads, 1996) or highway danger (Crossfire, 1990).

43

Favianna Rodriguez’s SHG print Community Control of the Land! from 2002, which features a devil-horned man in a dark suit with a gold-colored dollar bill pin on his lapel and an eviction notice in his pocket. He stands menacingly above a child and two women. Spanish text reads above, “!Alto A Los Desalojos! !Defienda Nuestros Hogares Y Levante Su Voz!” (“Stop the Evictions! Defend Our Homes and Raise Your Voice!”)

44

The City of L.A. has 3.8 million people; again, East Los Angeles has130,000 or so,, at least according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Depending on other people's definitions of what is "East Los Angeles," and whether or not the Census count captures everyone who resides there, other estimates vary.

45

The California Community Foundation gave $75,000.

46

That survival was threatened when on or about July 3, 2008, the Archdiocese told SHG Graphics President of the Board Armando Duron that the building has been sold to Piedmont Investment Company. The sale price was rumored to be $700,000 – previous appraisals were said to be at $1.5 million and $1 million. Duron said he'd sought a discount but been rejected. "I went to meet with the real estate people from the Archdiocese," Duron said, "and the guy said, 'We can't do that because we're in the middle of this pedophile scandal thing, and if the archdiocese has to go bankrupt we can not be seen as having given away assets. It will affect our bankruptcy filing. So we couldn't give you a discount.'" The new owners told a SHG official that rent would now be in the thousands of dollars per month – as opposed to the $1 annually the non-profit had paid all those previous years.

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor and project director. His writing has appeared in scores of books, magazines, newspapers and web sites. This is his first essay for the Studio for Southern California History.

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